Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hello World!

It's traditional when learning a new programming language to have your first program simply say "Hello world!" and terminate. It not only boosts your confidence, it signals that you've got all of the basics in place: an editor to create programs, an interpreter or compiler that can follow the instructions that you've programmed, and a way for the information to get out of the program and the computer into a form where you can make use of it. What you do at that point is up to you... hopefully more programming.

Over the last few years, I've been wrapping up my first book project: a study of how people reconstruct the past from various kinds of physical traces. My interest in the ways that material evidence and places can inform historical consciousness, and a growing interest in the potential of digital and public history, have led me to a related set of research questions. How can we use new technologies like ubiquitous / pervasive computing, ambient and tangible interfaces, and desktop fabrication to build historical interpretations into physical devices and environments? What happens when all of the bits that we've been creating through various kinds of digitization can become material atoms again? And how can this help us to better understand various pasts and make them usable in the present?

For a couple of years I've been doing projects with my students and research assistants that use technology to augment everyday places and objects, to put historical interpretations back into stuff. These projects have made use of GPS-enabled handheld and tablet computers; microcontrollers, analog sensors and actuators; and other electronic technologies. Up until now, however, we've had to buy physical components or fashion them by hand.

Last week, Adam, Devon and I had a chance to set up our new Roland Modela MDX-20 and try making something with it, a kind of physical "hello world."

The MDX-20 is a (relatively simple) computer-controlled milling machine. It is able to move a rapidly spinning, sharp tool in three dimensions, gradually removing material from a solid block, so that it comes to precisely resemble a three-dimensional model in the computer. What this means is that something that is almost purely virtual can be materialized in foam, plastic, wood, and other soft physical media. (Although our first efforts look pretty chunky, the machine is capable of much more precise contours--we have a lot to learn.) The MDX-20 also has a scanning probe, which we haven't had a chance to test yet. When used in scanning mode, the MDX-20 automates the creation of 3D models from physical objects. This allows you to start with one or more objects in the real world, scan them to create 3D models, edit or remix as desired, then replicate them in material form. At this point, the possibilities seem nearly endless.

In Thing Knowledge, the philosopher Davis Baird argues that "Things and theory can both constitute our knowledge of the world." Things can serve as models, physical representations that act in a similar way to theories. They can create phenomena, separating action "from human agency and buil[ding it] into the reliable behavior of an artifact." Or they can serve as measuring instruments, combining both representation and work (11-12). There's a long tradition of ignoring things to focus on ideas, cyberspace being one of many guises for idealism. It's time for digital humanists to say, "Hello, world!"

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